What it means to be a “True American”

It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve started college at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and in those two weeks, students in the “California Immigration Semester” have been given hundreds of pages of reading on immigration, much of which is devoted to discussing transnationalism, and the role language plays in shaping identity. As I have been reading “True American”, by Rosemary C. Salomone about “language, identity, and the education of immigrant children” I realize how this information is so relevant to my own life–a child of immigrant parents, and a graduate of the American public educational system.

The United States was created by immigrants. North Europeans at first, but then the second wave of South Europeans came, then Asians, and now Central and South Americans. Each generation, each wave of immigrants have developed the role the US plays on the international front–and each new wave has brought pushbacks by white Americans, or as they believe, “true Americans”. Laws in the 19th century banned teaching foreign languages in schools as German became the second most spoken language in the US, and as administrators, government officials decided public education is a place of Americanization, not just literacy. Speaking foreign languages in public were illegal–and worst, considered “Un-American”. Of course these laws are long-gone by now, but they set the pretext on the divide between the foreign-born and “true Americans”.

There was an idea that to be American, you needed to fully assimilate into American culture. And the best place to channel all immigrant children to assimilate was through the public educational system. Children of immigrants were put into special ed classes, considered to be retarded for not knowing the English language. Teenagers were put into elementary classes in order to learn English with their 7 year old counterparts. Educators discouraged parents from speaking to their children in their native tongue, and taught their students that the American language and culture is superior to their own–and to turn their backs against it if they truly wanted to become an American. Students listened to them. And they still do. Nothing much has changed since the 19th century, and I’m of the hundreds of thousands of young people who can attest to that.

My parents spoke to me in Farsi, Malay and English for the first 7 years of my life. My dad said I could actually converse in Farsi. When I went to elementary school, they became nervous that I wouldn’t be at the same level as my classmates since my English wasn’t as advanced as theirs. My teachers never sat down, or talked to my parents about the importance of retaining Farsi and Malay, to continue speaking it with me so I would grow up trilingual–Instead these other adults would pull me out of class to help me with my English. I still remember sitting down in a hallway while everyone else was working on a class project inside the classroom, and learning the difference between “tree” and “three”. My parents don’t remember me having someone help me with my English, but I do. I have a feeling no one told them I was getting these special one-on-ones. My parents stopped speaking to me in Malay and Farsi from then on, hoping that I could focus on English and reach the level of my classmates. Throughout elementary school, and even middle school, education taught us to become Americans. And apparently to be a True American, you can be only American.

In elementary school they have a system–In Kindergarten you learn about the people around you, your friends and family. In First grade you learn about your community. Second, your city. Third, your state. Fourth, your region, and fifth, the country. During these crucial years where you’re beginning to understand who you are and understand the world around you, you’re not actually taught about the world around you. You grow up thinking you’re an outsider, and that you have to do everything to assimilate into American culture–which includes, disowning your own.

It’s only until High School when you begin to learn about the world, and are able to identify yourself as someone different. I started becoming interested in learning Farsi, but it almost felt like it was too late. All my Iranian friends could speak Farsi, and I knew it would take a long time to catch up, especially learning it on top of French in high school and taking another language in college to fulfill requirements (they don’t offer Farsi). I wish I had retained my Farsi, and I know that’s a decision my parents regret too. (Although, my mom will remind me I’m Malaysian and should regret forgetting Malay too…)They’re glad that I’m learning now though, as our Iranian family friends do too. It’s essential to maintain our culture in the U.S.; to be transnationalists, to have dual identities. A lot of people my age aren’t interested in learning more about their culture, nonetheless the language. This is especially true for the H/Mong population, a population misunderstood by many for being Vietnamese, or other Asian races which they aren’t. Being raised in the U.S. it’s considered to be un-American to speak other languages in public. Weird if you embrace in different cultures at home. Unpatriotic if you consider two countries to be your homeland. For centuries the US has tried to transmit Americanism through American education, and it’s been working. But it’s not right.

We need to come to a place where schools embrace different cultures and encourage parents to continue to speak their native languages at home, and practice their traditions that they did in their own countries. There’s nothing Un-American about being transnational. This country was founded by immigrants, and have been shaped by them ever since. I don’t only advocate for a bilingual, multicultural education to retain foreign cultures and language, but for everyone. The more this country moves beyond our borders, the more even white Americans should start learning other languages and embracing multiple cultures to further enhance our role on the global state. This, is what the True America is beginning to really look like.

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